MENA’s Mad Men: Meet The Miknases

MiknasesEvery tale of glory begins with its heroes. The story of advertising in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region has its own few who had defied conventions to lay the foundation of a creative industry that would eventually take MENA and its work to a global stage. Akram Miknas, Chairman of the Middle East Communications Network (MCN), who set up a legacy that half a century later is continued by his son Tarek Miknas, at present the CEO of FP7 MENA, is among those handful names.

As the father and son duo sit across the Arabian Marketer at the FP7 office in Dubai, the conversation not only delves on the past but also articulates a vision for the future, narrating a journey filled with conviction, simplicity and memories that continue to educate and inspire.

Footprints Of An Ad Man
Part of the Interpublic Group, MCN is among the largest agency networks in MENA. Its story however began in a more humble setup in Beirut in 1968, when Akram Miknas, a university student at the time, and six other friends, founded the flagship agency Promotion Seven. Dubbing this as the most significant milestone of his professional journey, Mr Miknas says, “I have been blessed to choose a career that I was passionate about. Marketing can mean anything and when I had begun, it was all under the same roof. But from the word go, my first love was advertising.”

Each of the seven founders had invested 1000 Lebanese Lira and started by setting up exhibitions, creating branding and communication and eventually were tasked to create a campaign to promote a brand of frozen chicken – Lipoul. The agency’s creative approach worked, and Promotion Seven began to grow. The 1976 war in Beirut split the team, with Mr Miknas finding his home in Bahrain, where he set up the new Promotion Seven headquarter. Just about the time, Cathay Pacific was searching for a partner in the region and suggested Promotion Seven to represent its Hong Kong-based agency – Fortune. Thus was born Fortune Promoseven.

The years that followed saw the senior Miknas brave various odds, see different regimes rise and fall, survive slowdowns, and in the course, carve a niche on the global map. The agency had launched Dubai Duty Free, Coca-Cola, McDonalds and the Jumeirah Group to name a few in the region. The period also marked the transformation of Fortune Promoseven to FP7. Today its Dubai operation is considered one of McCann’s five global hubs. The agency has 16 offices in 14 countries, covering every single country in MENA barring Libya.

With as many hardships as accolades under his belt, the veteran’s love as an ad man has continued. “It is due to both the passion for the business and the kind of person that I am. By nature, if I get up in the morning and don’t find people to talk to, I put on the radio and start speaking to it. I make much more money in other businesses such as real estate and hospitality, but even today when there is a pitch, I want to be there. This is where I belong,” he says.

Passing On The Baton
In 2008, Interpublic Group bought 51 percent of the company, and the remaining 49 percent continued with Akram Miknas. Being a global agency representing all McCann brands, the agency’s journey grew from strength to strength. But Mr Miknas faced one of his tougher decisions early on, when he had to pass on the professional baton. Interesting, this was not as simple a process as naming Tarek Miknas the immediate successor. Recalling the decision of moving out of MCN, and naming another CEO, he says, “When I reached the point when the day-to-day work routine and its stress were not for me, I decided to give the company to a president who could take it to newer heights.”

Just as Akram Miknas named Fadi Salameh the CEO of MCN, Tarek Miknas returned to the region completing a six-year stint with McCann Worldgroup in New York. On the one hand, the US experience equipped the younger Miknas with experience that would assist him back home, but on the other hand, it meant that he never reported directly to his father. In hindsight, both the Miknases believe that this worked out for the better.

“I had never planned for any of my sons to follow in my footsteps. I wanted to give them the freedom to do whatever they liked. My elder son entered the food and hospitality business, running a completely different company. When Tarek got into this business, I warned him that it was not easy. Personally, I wanted him to be on an easier journey. But I was happy when he decided to join, more so, because I knew he was the right person for the job,” says the senior Miknas.

As for Tarek, the timing of his joining and the structural changes in the group came together at the right time for a relatively simpler transition. “It was brave on my father’s part to let someone else take control and to accept that I wanted to do other things. When I joined MCN, we were ready to do much more than just advertising. Working with Fadi was easy also because I did not have any precedents where I was working for my father. No matter how you look at it, a father-son relationship is very different than that of a boss. I began with a boss. When the company was restructured into MCN, and each company had its own leadership, I took FP7. It was the first time ever since the company started, that FP7 got a dedicated leader,” he recalls.

An Entrepreneur’s Mindset
Many a times when an entrepreneurial venture grows into a corporate, it does so at the cost of zest and spirit. For the Miknases though, it was important to keep the entrepreneur mindset integrated within the corporate. Tarek Miknas believes they are able to achieve this with some success. “The entrepreneurial spirit comes from the people and the culture. Though everything is very corporate in our structure and accountability, we encourage people to achieve greater heights and eye bigger goals, and the team here aims for it,” he says.

The elder Miknas on the other hand feels that there are moments when he misses the hunger and vigor of a startup. “Many times I find myself introspecting what we have become. I am not saying it was not the right thing but sometimes, I wonder. In my time, the business was so demanding. I was always struggling and working. It compromised my family life. If I didn’t really love the business, I couldn’t have survived. Perhaps that is why today at the age of 70, I feel better than I was at 20. I am free from the pressures and take decisions independently. During my days, there were no corporate guidelines. The only guideline was to survive. I never looked at the bottom line; I cared about the client. I had to take ownership.”

Onwards And Upwards
Like it was for most other agencies, 2016 was one of the toughest years for FP7 as well. “We did alright but it was stressful despite taking measures early on. Much of that nervousness has gone straight into this year; 2017 is going to be tougher,” Tarek adds.

Miknas senior agrees, pointing out that the global uncertainty does not help either. “There are too many things happening that is affecting our work adversely. What happens in the West influences our clients and our businesses directly. Especially with President Trump, we are really not sure what can happen next. I think it is going to be difficult. We are definitely living in a new era hereon.”

The foundation set by the senior Miknas however has held the agency in good stead – right from the Cathay Pacific win in 1976, when the carrier became its first multinational client, a relationship that continues till date to adding several long term partnerships over the years. In 2008, FP7 made advertising history by becoming the first agency from the Middle East to win two Gold and two Silver Lions, in the same year, at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. The winning streak continued. In 2016, the Contagious Pioneers ranked FP7 Dubai #10 in the world along with Leo Burnett Beirut. The Global Effie Index ranked FP7 Dubai as the Most Effective Individual Agency in the world. It won Agency and Network of the Year at MENA Effies for four consecutive years beginning 2013.

For Tarek Miknas, the next level of growth will come by getting ahead, leveraging the opportunities from technology. “The future is going to be about how we optimize and automate in the space of technology and innovation. We are under more pressure today than ever. Everything is mobile and online, and we must get there quickly. We have to learn to repackage ourselves into that space and take that journey into the future with our clients,” he says.

And that is a journey that the younger Miknas is all geared up for. The agency has undertaken several steps to stay ahead in the game including diversifying itself, partnering with startups, adding technology at the core of its offer and always putting its clients at the centre.

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